No-alcohol beer gets the craft-brew treatment, and it’s shockingly good.
People hear ‘nonalcoholic beer’ and think the worst,” says Bill Shufelt, cofounder of Athletic Brewing Company and Taproom in Stratford, Connecticut. “The standard commercial production gives you a bland or metallic taste. There hasn’t been a satisfying option with no compromise.”
That may explain why non-alcoholic beer makes up only about 2 percent of the beer market. Shufelt took this as a challenge—and an opportunity: to create beer with no alcohol but so much flavor that anyone would enjoy drinking it.
The craft beer renaissance we’re enjoying in the U.S. right now is built on flavor, flavor, and more flavor. Lighter brews like session ales (the name reportedly comes from mid-20th-century England, when factory workers drank low-alcohol beer during their allotted “drinking sessions”), and the newly resurgent shandy (beer + lemonade) are less about getting a buzz than they are about enjoying a delicious beverage.
For a brewery to give the same kind of love and attention to brewing flavorful nonalcoholic beer seems a logical next step.
“We’re firm believers that utter lack of innovation is responsible for generating the nonalcoholic-beer stigma in the U.S.,” says Shufelt. “The established methods were dead ends.”
He and John Walker—a multiple Great American Beer Festival medal winning brewer—performed more than a hundred trials over several years to reengineer the de-alcoholizing process into a revolutionary system that leaves the full character of the malt and hops intact.
“The fact that John would take the leap into the nonalcoholic world is amazing and a testament to his intellectual curiosity,” Shufelt says.
Shufelt chose the name Athletic to emphasize the healthier quality of his beer. He doesn’t preach abstinence, though his product is the best we’ve tasted for people who can’t or don’t drink alcohol. “We’re here to expand the craft beer world with a lot of new drinking occasions. Everyone can find a place where NA beer fits into their lives: Anytime you want to be more mindful—if you’ve just worked out, if you’re at a work dinner, if you’re with your kids, if you have to drive.”
Upside Dawn, one of Athletic’s signature beers, won a Silver Medal in the Gold or Blonde Ale category at the 2018 New York International Beer Competition, going up against beers that contain alcohol.
Standard de-alcoholization on a mass scale typically comes down to one of two techniques: (1) restricting the alcohol through a shortened brewing process that arrests fermentation, usually by cooling the yeast into inactivity before it can convert the grain sugar into alcohol, or (2) removing the alcohol, typically done by heating (alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water), or by filtration (beer is pressure-pushed through a semipermeable membrane that allows only alcohol and water to pass through. The alcohol is heated off and the water is returned to the beer.
In both cases, the beer’s flavor is compromised, as are the quality of the body and foaming properties. “In shortened processes, you get a more tea-like product and miss out on finished beer-flavor compounds,” says Shufelt. “With heat treatment, no matter how gently it’s done, you lose the potential for hop character because myrcene (the most common hop oil) starts to burn off at 147 degrees versus alcohol at 173 degrees.”
The removal of alcohol within the Athletic Brewing process isn’t as easy to isolate. Shufelt and Walker went back to the textbook level, reading entire curriculums on beer-making. They wanted to know how to make a less fermentable wort (one that will still undergo a significant fermentation over several weeks, but not a typical fermentation that turns wort directly into alcohol) that retains the esters and other chemical compounds that result from fermentation—the nuances of beer that transform it from a tea into a beer.
To get there, they took the standard nonalcoholic brewing process apart—tweaking variables with each trial—and reengineered it.
“For example, if you flare acidity or temperature at different moments during the brew day, you can ultimately affect the emergence of a compound during fermentation a week later,” Shufelt says. “There were definitely single moments on process development when we made huge strides, but there is just no single breakthrough point in the process to isolate and say, ‘This is how we de-alcoholize the beer.’ Our process is different at every stage and in every vessel. It is entirely new and entirely proprietary. But I can tell you this: John Walker’s recipes will expand the beer world to offer everyone a great-tasting nonalcoholic brew that stands up to today’s discerning taste and ingredient standards, something that is long overdue.”
This article originally ran in the November 2018 issue of Popular Mechanics.